|The Women's Institute
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - August 1998
Birch and Layer Breton Women's Institute celebrated its eightieth birthday on 11th June 1998.
This makes the Institute one of the longest surviving organisations in this area. The origin of the Institute in general, and of its introduction into this area in particular, may not be known to many so we felt that a trawl through the old Newsletters, reference books plus Minutes of the meetings held over the years, might provide some interesting background on something which has become almost synonymous with village life.
The Institute originated in Stoney Creek in the fruit growing belt of Ontario, Canada in 1897. There was already in Canada, a Farmers' Institute for the menfolk. A Mrs Adelaide Hoodless lost her first baby, due, she felt, to her ignorance of what was required to rear an infant. Worse than that was that she had no one to turn to for guidance. From this small beginning, and her concern for others placed in a similar position Mrs Hoodless had the idea of setting up some form of organisation to advise and educate women on matters of health and welfare. The early objectives were "to promote that knowledge of household science which shall lead to improvement in household architecture, with special attention to home sanitation; to a better understanding of the economic and hygienic value of foods and fuels; to a more scientific care of children, with a view to raising the general standard of the health of our people".
A body, known as The Women's Institute, had been formed in London in 1879 but it was more of a political pressure group concerned with representing women's work to Government and other interested bodies. The Canadian concept was copied in a number of European countries prior to the First World War but it was not until September 1915 that the first Institute in Britain was established in North Wales. Slowly the idea spread in the rural areas and within 18 months some 50 villages had formed Institutes.
Wednesday 7th June 1918 was the red letter day so far as this area was concerned and the first meeting was held at Birch School on the initiative of Mrs Charles Round. The opening address was given by Mrs Lynn Allen who set out the objectives and explained the Canadian origins. The aim was to help women in country places work together for the good of their country which was particularly appropriate with the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of the War fast approaching. A committee of 12 was elected with unanimous support of those present to organise proceedings with Mrs Palmer as President. Forty five women gave their names as members and it was agreed that membership should be open to all women and young girls over the age of 14. "It is hoped that the Institute will become a great feature of village life and will be the means of bringing women together for recreation, mutual help and education".
By September 1918 the Parish Newsletter was reporting that "The Women's Institute is now an accomplished fact, and so far is flourishing exceedingly. Two very successful meetings have been held". The programme had included a demonstration of fruit bottling, a button holing competition, a "war tea" plus music. Sister Evelyn Luard RRC, then on leave from a hospital in France, gave a talk on caring for the wounded and further talks on gardening were planned. Avowedly non-political an interest in current affairs was clearly apparent when, in October 1918, an address was to be given on "The privileges and responsibilities of the Vote". This was very appropriate as the Act to enable women to vote for the first time had just become law.
Regrettably there are no WI records of the earliest meetings but we know that the branch steadily grew and in January 1919 eighty two members were attending meetings. There was a Local Conference of Secretaries and Presidents in May 1919 at Birch Hall addressed by one of the Canadian founders and fund raising was undertaken to celebrate the Peace. Of even more significance was the first singing of "Jerusalem" in November of that year. It may even be that Canon Luard was the instigator as he trained a choir at Chelmsford which, it is said, gave the first performance so far as the WI is concerned. So we had one half of the most quoted motto - "Jam and Jerusalem" - the jam was to follow later! This is an oft quoted motto but it is not always appreciated that the real motto of the W.I. is "For Home and Country".
The thoughts of members in the early months were with the men of the district many of whom were serving on the Western Front and when Peace returned that area of the world was not forgotten completely as in 1920 funds were raised in answer to an appeal from the village of Gommecourt in France scene of much bitter fighting during the years 1914 - 1918.
As quieter times prevailed so a wider range of activities were undertaken and with over 100 members in 1924 a choir entered the WI Music Competition in Colchester. Lectures were given on prison life, gardening, birds, flowers, demonstrations of rug making, and rush work were welcomed and they moved into what became a traditional WI activity - the supply of teas at other village functions!
With the thriving success of the branch other Institutes were entertained to Musical Evenings and a Drama Team, which toured other villages, was formed. During the mid twenties a splendid number of prizes were gained at Group Conferences and Shows and the singing talents of the choir won at the County Finals on a number of occasions. Drama prizes for snippets from Shakespeare won first prizes from 1926 to 1928 (including excerpts one year from Macbeth defying the hoodoo which is said to accompany performances of that particular play!).
Bearing in mind that one of the subsidiary objectives of the WI was to broaden the experiences of members in a time when many would spend most of their lives in the same village it is interesting to note that excursions were made to Felixstowe in 1927 and in 1928 London was the destination - by coach to Woodford for breakfast and then on from there! These outings became an annual event and were very popular in days when there was no such thing as holidays with pay and for many it was the highlight of the year. Members took part in a Historical pageant at Layer Marney where they were to depict Queen Elizabeth arriving with her Ladies in Waiting! Lantern Slides were also shown and it was decided in 1928 that either sex could attend such events. However outings were to be restricted to Members only. Traditional fund raising activities included the inevitable whist drives and drama entertainments.
Some items in the 1928 Programme would be appropriate even today - Disposal of Refuse in the Village while others - Tea Party for the Old Ladies at Stanway Institution - would not. At Christmas collections were made for those less fortunate and Dolls, Games or Groceries were sought for Poor Children's Christmas Treats. There was clearly considerable support within the area for many of the activities as more than £10 was taken at a whist drive and there were four different prices for seats for the Dramatic Entertainment!
Glancing through the Minute Books not only reveals how things were conducted but it also leaves questions unanswered at times. Who, for example, was Inspector Champneys for whom the Womens' Auxiliary Service raised funds for an appeal in the form of a Home for Young Mothers and Babies, in 1929? (Further research shows that she had lectured on the need for women police officers in 1927). What wouldn't we give to have heard the replies to the Suggestion, also made in 1929 that "For a Roll Call: Members to say any interesting thing they know about Birch or Layer Breton, village historical, geographical, biographical etc. - either from first hand knowledge or tradition."
All manner of items reflecting the social history of the names appear in the records as when Mr Dennis, Secretary of the Colchester Hospital gave a talk, in 1924, on the new system of Hospital Insurance and appealed for those attending the meeting to join it - twenty four years before the National Health Service. Similarly a recurring subject was baby and infant care for which speakers were supplied by the County Council. The Food Education Society also provided speakers and items entered into the various cookery competitions often found their way to the local hospital. "Should Children be Whipped" was debated in 1925 and a "fairly large majority" decided "that under certain circumstances an occasional whipping was beneficial". The good old days? Two years later, however, it was decided to present table cloths and tumblers to the school for the use of those who stayed to dinner. The provision of slippers for children to wear on wet days also reflects on the original objectives of the WI both here and in Canada - health and welfare.
Another item to recur years later was the resolution passed in 1927 to request the Rural District Council to consider the provision of a footpath along a part of the lower road between the school hill and the Rectory Corner to enable children to get to school with dry feet when the road is flooded in wet weather - not quite the same as today but very similar!
Few if any meetings were cancelled until September 1939 but by October business returned to normal and a number of evacuees were welcomed to the meeting and, gradually, the war had an effect on activities. Increasing food supplies was an early subject and support was given to a sales stall in Colchester. Sites for collecting waste paper were notified to members, knitting for the forces and fund raising plus donating articles to the Red Cross were all carried out. Fresh vegetables were collected weekly, when possible, for the Navy. In 1941 it was proudly noted "that meetings were unmolested by enemy action". If only Hitler had known! The 90 plus members all played a part in the war effort and the list of activities given in the annual reports is far too long to reproduce here. Suffice it to say that no job was too small to be undertaken or too time consuming. If there is anyone who feels that the little woman stayed at home by the fire then ask to look at the reports for the years 1940 to 1946!
Pride of place must always be given to the Fruit Preservation and Jam Making enterprise carried on during the appropriate season throughout the war. In 1940 alone 1,000 cans and 400 bottles of fruit plus over 2000 pounds of jam were produced at Birch Hall! This is the stuff of legends but there are photographs to prove it really did take place.
From Essex At War by Hervey Benham, 1945, page 121
Eventually the war came to an end and, again, a semblance of normality returned to the villages. Things could never be exactly the same again and different pressures were felt. People were more mobile, towns beckoned with regard to employment to an even greater degree, more jobs had become available for women during the war and to an extent this became a permanent feature of the post war years. Entertainment was available and the means of travel by car became more accessible once rationing was ended. Television and cinema became competition for local organisations which had formerly had almost a monopoly in providing entertainment. Almost everywhere the WI, in common with many other such organisations, suffered from this competition. Diversions were available either in the home or were there at the cost of a 'bus fare.
Numbers fell away gradually and by the mid fifties there were only some 60 members but the activities were still of a high standard and in 1957 an anthology of verse on "Our Village" written by members was published. (It is interesting to note that, possibly for the first time, the name of Layer Marney is included in the WI's title). How true today are these lines by the late Mrs Poles?
This is our Village, a quiet place
Where one can live one's life at a gentler pace
Than that of townsfolk, hurrying to and fro'
But maybe they would think our life too slow.
Nothing special seems to have been arranged to celebrate the fortieth anniversary in 1958. By the 50th anniversary, however, there was more time to think and plan it seems although to be fair the Golden Jubilee was celebrated in 1969 not 1968. The party was held at Birch School, where the inaugural meeting had been held and six of the founder members attended with two others sending their apologies for being absent due to ill health. We have an excellent tape recording, made by Tim Dennis, to give the flavour of what was a very happy occasion. Several amusing tales were told by members and the Jam "Factory" featured strongly!. A graphic description of the old kitchen at Birch Hall was given and the whole process was described as "being like a beehive". Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, wrote a congratulatory letter thanking all for their efforts but one wonders if he would have done so if he had heard the inside story? Having "jammed" all day some helpers were up until midnight sewing pyjamas for the Red Cross - little wonder then that some sets ended up with two left legs or were sewn back to front. Above everything else though the tape records the sense of fun experienced by the members in belonging to the WI. Interestingly though there was an appeal for more young members to join even though the membership was 60.
As in earlier years members gave thought to others outside the villages and funds were raised for a number of organisations and places. Within the area it was decided to give a party for all those over 60s in the villages and over 100 were entertained. From this and the subsequent Harvest Festival party the Get Together Club was formed and is still in existence today.
The 70th anniversary was celebrated at Hellens, Hardy's Green in June 1988 when a summary of activities includes assistance at the St Helena Hospice and the village Welfare Clinic. Mention is also made of the Annual Produce Show which had been operating for many years and is still held each September. This is not only supported by members but welcomes others in competing in classes.
The final paragraph of the programme for the 70th party states that the "Institute planned to carry on the tradition and keep our members abreast of current developments in all aspects of social, home and educational life". This has been continued and the pledge was renewed at the 80th party. During recent years whist drives may not have featured but darts and rounders plus an annual car rally have been undertaken. Campaigning is still aimed at improving the lot of others and one instance of this is the warning signs informing drivers that there is no footpath to the school. Perhaps events wil soon make these less important! The County WI Show is an occasion when local prowess can be judged against that from other villages and the next ten years has got off to a flying start with the Rochford Trophy, for the best exhibit in its Class, at the 1998 Show!
It would not be appropriate to list those who have held office, in either local or County positions, as it would not only be a long list but it would not reflect the very important part played by the many members who have not sought office but who have been willing to lend a hand when the call went out. Perhaps to allay any fears held by anyone considering joining the Institute it is fair to say that it was astounding to find that that the Golden Jubilee party was organised by a member of only a few months standing who had the support of Committee and members alike. The task must have been a daunting prospect but due to the friendliness and support of all concerned that evening was clearly a great success. It is in this spirit that the Institute was created and it is in this spirit that it has met the many challenges set it. For "Home and Country" may be the motto but "Be Prepared" could be added plus, perhaps, now that it is such a central part of village life "England Expects". In Birch and Layer Breton, however, "Jam and Jerusalem" will always mean something special.